New Decision on Opinion Evidence

The Tennessee Supreme Court has decided Brown v. Crown Equipment Co., a case that asked the Court to give us a further understanding of the McDaniel opinion on expert testimony that it released a few years ago. Brown involves an injury related to a forklift; the trial judge excluded two of the experts offered by the plaintiff and directed a verdict in favor of the defendant. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed and remanded for trial. The Court said:

“In McDaniel, we listed several nonexclusive factors that courts could consider in determining the reliability of scientific testimony, including

(1) whether scientific evidence has been tested and the methodology with which it has been tested; (2) whether the evidence has been subjected to peer review or publication; (3) whether a potential rate of error is known; (4) whether . . . the evidence is generally accepted in the scientific community; and (5) whether the expert’s research in the field has been conducted independent of litigation.”

However, the Court went on to say that:

“We continue to emphasize, however, that these factors are non-exclusive and that a trial court need not consider all of these factors in making a reliability determination. Rather, the trial court enjoys the same latitude in determining how to test the reliability of an expert as the trial court possesses in deciding whether the expert’s relevant testimony is reliable. Kumho Tire Co., 526 U.S. at 152. The objective of the trial court’s gatekeeping function is to ensure that “an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” Id. Furthermore, upon admission, expert testimony will be subject to vigorous cross-examination and countervailing proof. Stevens, 78 S.W.3d at 835; McDaniel, 955 S.W.2d at 265. The weight of the theories and the resolution of legitimate but competing expert opinions are matters entrusted to the trier of fact. See McDaniel, 955 S.W.2d at 265.”

The Court then analyzed the decision to exclude both experts. “In the present case, the trial court concluded that it was required to apply all five of the McDaniel factors in assessing the reliability of the testimony of Mr. Johannson and Dr. Harris. Although a trial court has great latitude in assessing the reliability of expert testimony, we have never required a rigid application of the McDaniel factors in a reliability determination involving scientific or nonscientific expert evidence.”

The Court then evaluated the reliability of the testimony of the experts, found that given the trial court’s mistaken assumption that all five factors must be applied held that the trial court erred in excluding the testimony of the two experts.

The Court then held that the testimony of the experts was sufficient to create a jury issue and therefore reversed the entry of a judgment in favor of the defendant on the directed verdict motion.

Read the opinion here.

This opinion should assist trial courts in deciding whether to admit expert testimony. It certainly appears to me that the Court has great trust in juries to evaluate the testimony of competing experts and therefore it will not allow a trial court to bar expert testimony from being heard by a jury absent an appropriate evaluation of the factors outlined in McDaniel and its progeny.